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Reprinted from REVISTA/REVIEW INTERAMERICANA Vol. VIII, No. 3, Fall 1978 

Reprinted with permission of the author in 


The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian 
'History and Anthropology 

December, 2006. 

The Virgin Islands as an Historical 
Frontier Between the Tainos and the 


Alfredo E. Figueredo 

The role played by the Virgin Islands as a frontier between the Tainos of Puerto Rico and the 
Caribs of the Lesser Antilles has not been studied adequately. Historians and archaeologists 
either have avoided the issue, 1 or been divided on the subject 2 due to an incomplete consultation 
of printed sources, which are scattered and in various languages. This is the first attempt at a 
documented history encompassing the whole period in question (1493-1688), and existing 
theories may be tested against it. 

St. Croix was the first of the Virgin Islands to be discovered by Columbus' fleet, and the 
only one found to be inhabited. 3 It was reported as being well-cultivated in 1493 and was 
grouped with the other main Carib centers of Guadeloupe and Dominica. 4 From it frequent raids 
were launched against the Tainos of Puerto Rico. 

As in Guadeloupe and the other Carib islands, Taino captives were a considerable portion 
of the Cruzan population. 5 Women and boys were held 


* The author wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance of the Wilbur Cross Library of the University of 
Connecticut, the Sterling Library of Yale University, the Rare Book Division of the Astor and Lennox 
Branch, New York Public Library, and the West Indian Room, St. Thomas Public Library, Dr. Hugh 
M. Hamill of the University of Connecticut, and Mr. Stephen D. Glazier. 

ALFREDO E. FIGUEREDO teaches anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. 

l.Cf. Dookhan,pp. 15-29. 

2. Cf. Hatt; vide Watlington, p. 5. 

3. Bernaldez, p. 287 

4. Cf. Bernaldez, pp. 284-286; Cuneo in Raccolta, p. 97. 

5. Ibid. 

394 Revista/Review Inter americ ana 

in bondage, some of the former as concubines. The latter were castrated and fattened for 
slaughter. Exocannibalism, in fact, was an avowed reason for Carib raids. The only captives 
eaten, however, were adult males. 6 The castrated boys were used in domestic and menial chores 
until they were old enough for consumption. Miscegenation between the two groups was 
unacceptable at this early date, since only those children born of Carib women were kept, all 
others being eaten. 7 

Traditionally, the Caribs have been mortal enemies of the Tamos. 8 Without their 
cooperation, Caribs could not have obtained access to trees suitable for making sea-faring 
canoes, which were available in Puerto Rico. St. Croix, as now, lacked forests comparable to 
those of the larger island.' If the sharp division evidenced clearly enough by constant warfare 
had been absolute, then it would follow that the Tamos must have ambushed Carib logging 
parties at every opportunity. That this was not so implies regulated warfare, perhaps of a ritual 
nature, rather than the total conflict sometimes envisioned. 

In 1509, Juan Ponce de Leon began the Spanish conquest of Puerto Rico." While 
exploring the southern coast of the island, he came across Carib loggers, which he detained." 
The Tamos complained to him that Caribs raided them often. 12 Ponce de Leon wrote Governor 
Ovando for permission to build a brigantine in order to patrol the coasts of Puerto Rico. He also 
intended to return the Caribs to St. Croix, take the Taino captives held on that island back to 
Puerto Rico, secure provisions from the Cruzan natives, and in general, pacify them. 13 The 
various requests were granted, and many of the Cruzan Caribs were converted briefly and 
nominally to Christianity. 14 A conuco (garbled as 'convento' in some texts) was set up for 
the King. 15 

The adventurer Diego de Nicuesa raided St. Croix for slaves only three months after 
Ponce de Leon's pacification of the island. 16 He took about 150 Caribs, and scandalized the 
Cruzans into rebellion. 17 Spain lost St. Croix permanently the same year that it was won. The 
Taino revolts, aided by the Caribs, kept the Spaniards busy elsewhere. 18 The two former enemies 
had become allies. 

6. Bernaldez, p. 285. 

7. Op. Cit, p. 284. 

8. Cf. Santa Cruz, p. 498. 

9. Martyr, p. 99; cf. Coll y Toste, vol. I (1914), pp. 121-124; vide Brau y Asensi, p. 212. 

10. Coll y Toste, loc. cit. 

11. Doc. Ined., vol. XXXIV (1880), pp. 361, 488-489, 494. 

12. Ibid.; cf. Martyr, loc. cit. 

13. Falco y Osorio, p. 87; Doc. Ined., vol. XXXIV (1880), pp. 488-489; cf. Murga Sanz, Ponce, p. 45. 

14. Santa Cruz, p. 501. 

15. Doc. Ined., vol. XXXIV (1880), p. 361. 

16. Doc. Ined., vol. XXI (1879), pp. 530-531. 

17. Santa Cruz, loc. cit. 

18. Doc. Ined., vol. XXXIV (1880), p. 361. 

Alfredo E. Figueredo 395 

The great Taino uprising of 151 1 was the first of several aided and perhaps also instigated 
by the Caribs of St. Croix. Kinsmen from Guadeloupe and Dominica joined the Cruzans in their 
incursions on behalf of the oppressed Tamos, 19 trying to reverse the Spanish conquest before it 
reached their islands. The Virgins became bases from which Taino rebellions were staged and 
where Carib contingents assembled. 20 

The Taino institution of name-exchange, known broadly to the Caribs also, is perhaps one 
of the mechanisms which facilitated the confederation of these two nations. Upon an exchange of 
names, the parties involved would adopt each other. Persons so joined were said to be guatiao. 11 
Enmity did not cease between them altogether, but peace or cooperation with a common foe 
became possible. Insofar as documentary evidence is lacking, this is, of course, conjectural; but 
name-exchange similar to Taino guatiao was the means whereby Caribs secured trade with the 
Lokono of the mainland during the early and middle XVII Century. 22 Specific forms of social 
interaction that may have led to the alliance of Tamos and Caribs against the Spaniards are 
unknown. The exchange of hostages is one possibility. 23 

It is surprising to read of the Cruzan Caribs as a threat to Spanish rule in Puerto Rico. 24 
The island is quite small, and a large population is inconceivable. Over 20 villages are reported, 25 
and the minimum number of inhabitants for each may be postulated at 60. If a maximum of 250 
persons were admitted for a large Carib village, then the total would oscillate from over 1200 to 
under 5000, an unknown portion of whom would be Taino captives. At a density of 40 
individuals per square mile (within what is feasible for slash- and-burn horticulture) an acceptable 
figure of about 3275 is obtained. Clearly, Nicuesa's raid was a grievous blow and aid from the 
Lesser Antilles imperative if any large-scale fighting were to be undertaken. 

The first Spanish reaction depopulated St. Croix for several years. 26 Significant ships and 
supplies arrived from Spain in 1511 as a foretaste of the armadas contra caribes. 11 The Caribs 
fled, scattered among the northern Virgins, and continued the fight from there. 28 It is interesting 
that many Puerto Rican Tamos apparently went down island with the Caribs rather than submit 
to the Spaniards. This has been noted by historians as a Taino exodus, 29 and, specifically, it is 
stated that the Virgin Islands received a large number of them. Some also fled to Dominica, 
Guadeloupe, and other islands of the Lesser Antilles. Not only did Caribs come to Puerto Rico to 
aid the 

19. Cf. Castellanos, pp. 125-138. 

20. Brau y Asensi, pp. 232, 257-258. 

21. Las Casas, vol. II, p. 234. 

22. Dreyfus-Gamelon, p. 92. 

23. Vide Martyr, pp. 99-100. 

24. Ced. P.R., vol. I, p. 158, Doc. Ined., vol. XXXII (1879), p. 261. 

25. Santa Cruz, loc. cit. 

26. Brau y Asensi, p. 213; Doc. Ined., vol. XXXIV (1880), p. 146; vol. XXXVI (1881), p. 383. 

27. Tapia y Rivera, p. 302. 

28. Brau y Asensi, p. 232; cf. Watlington. 

29. Vide Murga Sanz, Ponce, pp. 311-312. 

396 Revista/Review Inter americ ana 

Tafnos in their wars against the Spaniards then, but also received them as refugees and sheltered 
them from their enemies. Were the exodus as large as one might be led to believe, it is probable 
that historic Island Carib culture had blended with Tafno. 30 

At this point the frontier became one of common resort and cooperation, the Virgin 
Islands being a battle ground where Tafnos and Caribs together put up whatever resistance they 
could to the Spanish Empire. The fighting qualities of the Indians were held in low esteem by the 
Spaniards, 3 ' but one may gather that important differences existed in their modes of warfare. The 
Tafnos gave battle guided by strategic designs that demanded rigid organization. No allowance 
was made for individual heroism which might spoil a joint effort. War was waged for specific 
objectives and had no other social purpose. Rank and station were hereditary among the Tafnos 
and could not be achieved in or outside combat. 32 

The Caribs, however, used war as an instrument of social selection and ranking. Their 
only chiefs were military leaders selected according to their prowess. In order to retain social 
cohesion and structure, a state of perpetual warfare had to exist. 33 They were organized 
exclusively for predation, with no capabilities or numbers for significant territorial expansion, 
having only plunder and achieved status to gain from their raids. The Caribs were therefore 
better fighters individually, but less effective collectively. 34 

During the first rounds of anti-Spanish warfare (1511-1514), the Caribs were junior allies 
subordinate to the needs, designs, and multitude of the Tafnos. They fought largely, therefore, as 
special shock or support units of Tafno armies. 35 After the defeats of 1514 and the outfitting of 
the first official armadas contra caribes, u Tafno tactics became ineffective. Added to this, an ant 
plague spread in 1518, followed by smallpox in 1519. 37 The mortality sustained between war, 
famine and disease was such that organized resistance ceased in Puerto Rico, 38 and the Caribs, 
deprived of their formerly numerous allies and on the run in their own islands, reverted to raids 
having lost all hope of complete victory. 

Raiding parties still resorted often to the Virgin Islands to hold ou'icou or sweet-potato 
beer festivals, even if permanent populations were lacking in most of them. Vieques was visited 
often until around 1582, though Caribs never settled it. 3 ' Another island frequented casually by 
Caribs was Virgin Gorda, where a large assembly of them, including Tafno refugees and booty, 

30. Cf. Dreyfus-Gamelon. 
31.Bernaldez,p. 284. 

32. Fernandez de Oviedo, Las Casas; cf. Dookhan, p. 24. 

33. Cf. Dookhan, loc. cit.; Dreyfus-Gamelon, p. 89. 

34. My conjecture on the basis of the foregoing. 

35. Castellanos, loc. cit.; Brau y Asensi. 

36. Murga Sanz, Manuscritos, pp. 115, 119, 272-273, 287, 295. 

37. Las Casas, vol. Ill, pp. 270-273. 

38. Brau y Asensi, p. 299; Murga Sanz, op. cit., p. 158. 

39. Doc. Ined, vol. XXI (1874), p. 285. 

Alfredo E. Figueredo 397 

was broken up as early as 15 ll. 40 Three years later a Carib war party from Dominica was 
surprised while holding a ouicou in Vieques and massacred by the Spaniards. 41 

Culebra was inhabited by Caribs around 1541. 42 St. Croix was inhabited sporadically at 
least through 1587. 43 Aboriginal settlements close to Puerto Rico, however, were at the mercy of 
the Spaniards and suffered the fate that many northern European settlers were to share with them 
in this area until about 1689: periodic annihilation. 

One learns of no aborigines encountered when St. Croix was colonized briefly by the 
French in 1621. As several nations (chiefly the Dutch and English) struggled for an upper hand 
there, a similar silence prevails on the question. Perhaps the island had been abandoned recently 
by the Caribs, or they may have been chased off island by the colonists. Even if the native Caribs 
were gone, it is likely that the Dutch brought some to St. Croix as slaves. During the major 
period of Dutch colonization on St. Croix (1642-1645) the Carib slave trade was initiated on 
nearby St. Eustatius. 44 Indeed, the Dutch colony founded on St. Thomas between 1657 and 1666 
included some Caribs. 45 These were probably at least partly native, though they were few. 
Despite the expulsion of the Dutch from St. Thomas in 1667, the Danes found some of these 
Caribs still there five years later. 

The Dutch colony on Tortola (which lasted from around 1648 until 1672) 46 may also have 
had a Carib population. Shortly after 1672, most of the St. Thomian Caribs removed to the 
uninhabited island of St. John in order to avoid Danish colonists. 47 What became of them is 
uncertain. A census of St. Thomas counted four Caribs still living there in 1688. 48 

From the preceding it can be seen that the Virgin Islands played three different roles as a 
frontier area. Until the Spaniards arrived in Puerto Rico they were an embattled frontier between 
the Tamos and the Caribs, St. Croix being a Carib center. The smaller Virgins were undefendable 
by either side due to constant warfare. After 1509, the Virgin Islands became a common frontier 
or meeting ground where Caribs and Tamos pooled their resources in order to save Puerto Rico 
and protect the Carib islands. After the defeat of the last major Taino revolt in 1514, devastating 
reverses such as the ones suffered on Virgin Gorda andVieques, and the onset of diseases in 
1519, the Virgin Islands assumed their final role as a frontier area for native Americans, 
becoming an advanced outpost used by Taino refugees and 

40. Tio y Nazario, pp. 30-109. 

41. Castellanos, p. 137. 

42. Santa Cruz, p. 501. 

43. White in Hakluyt, pp. 764-765; vide Marx, p. 50. 

44. Hartog,p. 61. 

45. H0st pp. 5-6; Oldendorp, vol. I, p. 33. 

46. Menkman, pp. 184-185. 

47. Oldendorp, vol. I, p. 21. 

48. Westergaard, p. 122. 

398 Revista/Review Inter americ ana 

Caribs against Spanish Puerto Rico. They were no longer occupied by large numbers of Indians. 

It was the colonization of the Lesser Antilles by European powers that ended the role of 
the Virgin Islands in the history of aboriginal America. Puerto Rico had long been alienated from 
that world when the other side of the frontier also collapsed. Little of the Carib homeland was 
left by the middle of the XVII Century, and of this the Virgins were a severed outlier, with a few 
inhabitants that had both their escape and succour pre-empted. It is likely that the last Indians of 
the Virgin Islands, whether Tamos, Caribs, or a blend of these, died in slavery or trying to resist 

Abbreviated Do c u m e ntary Sources 
Ced. P.R. Vicente Murga Sanz, ed., Cedulario Puertorriqueno, 2 vols. (1961). 
Doc. Ined. Academia de la Historia (Spain), Coleccion de Documentos Ineditos Relativos al 

Descubrimiento, Conquista y Organization de las Antiguas Posesiones Espanolas de 

America y Oceania, 42 vols. (1864-1884). 
Raccolta Guglielmo Berchet, ed., Narrazioni sincrone, Fonti Italiane per la Storia della Scoperta 

del Nuovo Mondo, Raccolta di Documenti e Studi Pubblicati dalle R. Commissione 

Colombiane pel Quarto Centenurio dalla Scoperta dellAmerica, Parte III, Volume II (1893). 

Gen eral Bib liography 

Bernaldez, Andres. Memorias del Reinado de los Reyes Catolicos. Edicion y estudio por Manuel 
Gomez-Moreno y Juan de M. Carriazo. Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia, 1962. 
lxvi+708 p. 

Brau y Asencio, Salvador. La colonization de Puerto Rico. Desde el descubrimiento de la Isla 
hasta la reversion a la corona espanola de los privilegios de Colon. Cuarta edicion anotada por 
Isabel Gutierrez del Arroyo. San Juan de Puerto Rico: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena, 
1969. 639 p. 

Castellanos, Juan de. Primera Parte de las Elegias de Varones Illustres de Indias. En Madrid, en 
casa de la viuda de Alonso Gomez. Ano 1589. 382 p. 

Coll y Toste, Cayetano (ed.). Boletin Historico de Puerto Rico, 14 vols. (1914-1928). 

Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Charlotte Amalie: College 
of the Virgin Islands, 1974. 321 p. 

Dreyfus-Gamelon, Simone. "Remarques sur l'organisation socio-politique des carai'bes insulaires 
au XVIIeme siecle." Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress for the Study of Pre- 
Columbian Cultures of the Lesser Antilles (1976), pp. 87-97. 

Falco y Osorio, Maria del Rosario. (Duquesa de Berwick y Alba, Condesa de Siruela) 
Autografts de Cristobal Colon y Papeles de America. Madrid, 1892, v+203 p. 

Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, Gonzalo. Historia General y Natural de las Indias. Edicion y 
estudio preliminar de Juan Perez de Tudela Bueso. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Espanoles 
desde la formacion del lenguaje hasta nuestros dias, tomos 117-121 (1959). 5 vols. 

Hakluyt, Richard. The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English nation, 
made by Sea or ouer Land, to the most remote and farthest distant Quarters of the earth at any 
time within the compasse of these 1500 yeares. Imprinted at London by George Bishop and 
Ralph Newberie, Deputies to Christopher Barker, Printer to the Queenes most excellent 
Maiestie. 1589. 825 p. 

Alfredo E. Figueredo 399 

Hartog, Johannes. De Bovenwindse Eilanden Sint Maarten-Saba-Sint Eustatius. Eens Gouden 

Rots nu Zilveren Dollars. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Antillen, vol. IV. Aruba, 1964. 

xi+747 p. 
Hatt, Gudmund. "Archaeology of the Virgin Islands." XXI International Congress of 

Americanists: Proceedings of the First Session (1924), pp. 29-42. 
H0st, Georg Hjersing. Efterretninger om 0en Sanct Thomas og dens Gouverneurer, optegnede 

derpaa Landetfra 1769 indtil 1776 ued Georg H0st, Staatsrad, og Secretair i Departementet 

for & udelandske Sager. Ki0benhavn, Trykt og forlagt af Nicolaus M0ller og S0n, Kongelige 

Hof-Bogtrykkers. 1971. xx+203 p. 
Las Casas, Bartolome de. Historia de las Indias. Edicion de Agustin Millares Carlo y estudio 

preliminar de Lewis Hanke. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1965. 3 vols. 
Martyr de Angleria, Petrus. Opera. Graz: Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt, 1966. xii+707 

Marx, Robert F. "Pedro Serrano: The First Robinson Crusoe." Oceans, vol. 7 (1974), no. 5, pp. 

Menkman, Willem Rudolph. Tortola. De West-Indische Gids, vol. 20 (1938), pp. 178-192. 
Murga Sanz, Vicente. Juan Ponce de Leon. Fundador y primer gobernador del pueblo 

puertorriquenno, descubridor de la Florida y del Estrecho de las Bahamas. Rio Piedras: 

Ediciones de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1959. 385 p. 
Puerto Rico en los Manuscritos de Don Juan Bautista Munoz. Rio Piedras: Ediciones 

de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1960. xx+419 p. 
Oldendorp, Christian Georg Andreas. Geschichte der Mission der evangelischen Briider aufden 

caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas , S. Croix und S. Jan. Barby: bey Christian Friedrich Laux, 

1777. 2 vols. 
Santa Cruz, Alonso de. Islario General de Todas las Islas del Mundo. Publicado por vez primera 

con un prologo de D. Antonio Blazquez. Madrid: Publicaciones de la Real Sociedad 

Geografica, 1918-1920. 2 vols. 
Tio y Nazario, Aurelio. Nuevas fuentes para la historia de Puerto Rico. San Juan, 1961. xix+653 

Watlington, Francisco. "Tainos versus caribes. Una nueva perspectiva." Fundacion 

Arqueologica, Antropologica e Historica de Puerto Rico: Boletin Informativo, vol. I (1973), 

no. 3, pp. 5-6. 
Westergaard, Waldemar Christian. The Danish West Indies under Company Rule (1671 -1754), 

with a supplementary chapter, 1755-1917. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917. 

xxiv+359 p. 


This article, published originally in 1978, offered a very innovative understanding of the relations between Tainos 
and Caribs during early colonial encounters with European intruders. While at the start of the article the author 
reproduces what were the orthodox understandings of Carib cannibalism, and here readers should exercise 
prudence in considering the many critiques of these once common portrayals. KACIKE nevertheless reproduces 
this article for two main purposes: (i) its publication is in keeping with KACIKE's goal of providing an archive of 
articles printed in journals that may not be easily accessed by the wider public; and, (ii) the article does provide us 
with what are still some very necessary data and analyses of the ways that boundaries between the Caribs and the 
Tainos, their increasing exchange, and common resistance to Spanish colonizers. Very little information is 
available on the Virgin Islands during this period, and, we have very little in the way of detailed information or 
interpretation on Carib-Taino relations during this critical period.